How a Brown Leather Briefcase Beat a Platoon of Cops
- October 12, 2018
JUST the tail was visible. The rest of the dilapidated sky-blue and white Kenya Bus Service contraption was hid beyond the vibandas lining the road. A piece of clear polythene flapped wildly in the wind where the bus was missing a window pane. It looked like a panicky hawk attempting to fly off a snare.
A small traffic was beginning to build up because the bus was half blocking the junction. It could have been loading passengers right on the single-lane road. Or someone else could have been loading passengers on the road in front it, blocking its mobility.
Either case was no big deal. Patience was a virtue these sides of Nairobi City.
Some balding bloke in a brown Peugeot 504 saloon seemed to understand this. His ride couldn’t fit in the space between the smoking rear of the bus and a simu ya jamii kiosk. So, he sat patiently, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever song that was playing on his car stereo. He didn’t use his horn. It wouldn’t work. It never did.
But he didn’t have to. The bus grunted and spewed a cloud of dark, diesel smoke. Like a fidgety bull suddenly startled, it lurched forward and disappeared beyond the makeshift stalls, the trapped bird flapping furiously.
The wind hesitated for a moment as the junction vanished under the grey haze of poorly combusted fuel. Before it could recover, a dark blue silhouette that sent a chill right to the blister bobbing in my toe sliced through the mist like a dolphin through the surface of an ocean.
The guilty, the suspicious, the jittery…scampered to safeguard their freedom. Some unlucky ones were nabbed mid-flight…
The police Land Rover 110 skidded to a halt across the road, tires squealing in protest. A swarm of jungle uniforms, helmets and clubs spilled out and spread in all directions like termites on a hunting rendezvous.
I was supposed to bolt, take cover. But I didn’t. Not on this day.
The guilty, the suspicious, the jittery…scampered to safeguard their freedom. Some unlucky ones were nabbed mid-flight and made to link their shirts in knots. Handcuffs were too precious for these captives.
They were sat on the dusty road in a line, hands on their heads. Most were glistening with sweat; partly due to the afternoon sun, but mainly from the exertion of a futile defence of their independence.
I was marvelling at the speed the human chain was acquiring new links when a cop cluttered into me. He murmured a “sorry boss”, and grabbed me by the collar to arrest my back-peddling into a nearby trench. I nodded a “no worries”, smoothing out the red and white stripes of the tie.
The newspaper under my arm had also slid three quarters through and dangled dangerously. I belaboured to adjust the critical asset back into place. It was to be noticed, not read. Its date read Wednesday May 5, 2004. That was a month and half back. But no one was asking.
Enter the croc
The grey suit I had on was courtesy of a cousin’s wedding two years earlier. It was my most treasured possession. That, the shiny pair of black moccasins on my feet and the brown briefcase occasionally switching from my right to left hand.
It was inherited from father, the briefcase that is. He was gifted it by a group of interning medics from Australia on an exchange programme of sort. My dad was a medical doctor.
The bag was genuine crocodile leather and pretty hardy. My old man donated it to me because he couldn’t stand the brown colour. That, and the fact that I needed a place to pack a few clothes when I announced a job interview in Nairobi a few months before. Saved him from spending a few shillings on a new bag, it did. He was a pretty stingy man. Perhaps they teach them how not to spend in medical school. I don’t know.
The bag completed my official look as I watched police round up people at Dandora Phase Four bus terminus. I must have stood out from the gruffness of the ghetto like a chocolate stain on a bride’s gown. Mine must have been a picture of a young accountant’s innocence, or a budding lawyer’s confidence. A future leader.
Then I spotted Maish towering over Mama Nyokabi’s purple kitenge headgear across the road. There was a bulging black paper bag dangling from her hand. I stared at it in trepidation.
The two saw the cops and faltered –for just a moment. They then strode forward, smoke billowing out of Maish nostrils like twin exhaust pipes. I squinted, trying to confirm it was indeed a tobacco stick the tall fellow was burning. A few times, he put the wrong stick in his mouth at very awkward places and proceeded to puff away. Very absent-minded, Maish was.
He was Mama Nyokabi’s right hand man and perhaps best friend. They were also cousins who grew up together in the expanses of Nyahururu countryside, born just a month apart. If you didn’t know this and the fact that Mama Nyokabi was safely married to a very quiet, very shy Kamba guy, you would think she and Maish were a thing.
No one really knew what Maish did for a living. If his cousin did know, then she didn’t tell. He spent a substantial amount of his daylight lazing around his cousin’s changaa joint where he did more smoking than talking, and even less drinking. But he was generous with booze, occasionally buying a glass or two of Mama Nyokabi’s fiery bootleg for random fellows around him.
No one had ever been to Maish’s house either. It was rumoured to be in a flat on Phase II. But no one knew the exact flat. Very secretive fellow, this Maish was.
The overwhelming belief was he was a thug. Conspiracy theorists like my roommate Oscar even placed his tall figure on a number of crime scenes around the City. Personally, I thought the bugger was a detective, a government spy, but none of them would buy that. They said he was too clumsy to be entrusted with such a sensitive skill, arguing that he would blow his cover in a week.
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Some elderly drunk, a regular at the joint, even confessed to have watched Maish grow up and swore the only time he left the village was the day he fell asleep at the back of a Canter truck that was loading potatoes at their farm in Nyahururu. Fellow woke up 200 kilometres away at Nairobi’s Marikiti fresh produce market.
Nearly broke his long back offloading bananas and cabbages from lorries at the market to earn his supper, said the elderly inebriate. Then one day, Mama Nyokabi spotted him suffering under a massive sack of potatoes and hauled him to Dandora. That seemed to blow my CID theory to smithereens, but I still had that nagging feeling…
As for me, Mama Nyokabi embraced me like a son when I went to live with my cousin in Dandora. I discovered her bootleg joint rather quickly because I was a young, jobless lad who liked to get high. How, and on what, was inconsequential.
As it were, Mama Nyokabi’s liquified fire was the most sensible means to that end. Just four glasses of the distilled inferno was enough to knock twenty years off my brain cells. Yep, just forty bob and my body turned into that of a one-year-old; perilously unstable, incoherent, volatile on multiple openings and highly emotional.
I became a regular customer and soon gained enough trust to get credit. By and by, Mama Nyokabi started including me on her plate count for supper. I began spending more and more time doing her personal chores, including helping her youngest daughter do her Class Six homework, unless I was too drunk to see the page.
Nyokabi, her firstborn, was about my age and did tailoring at the neighbouring estate of Kariobangi. Njeri, the second born, was in Form Three at a secondary school upcountry.
I guess their mother wished she had a boy. She introduced me as her son to any new face. I felt like one most times. Even her daughters referred to me as ‘big bro’. Sometimes, I wished they wouldn’t. Nyokabi was not bad looking at all. Anyways, that’s how I became a part of Mama Nyokabi’s family and illegal booze enterprise.
Back to the stage, Mama Nyokabi and Maish are stopped by an army of cops. Towering above the sea of jungle uniforms, Maish looked like a chimney sprouting through a forest. I held my breath as the officers fished coins, matchboxes, a bottle top and a flashlight battery from his trouser pockets.
A female cop perched on the tip of her boots and reached into his shirt pocket. Her fingers fished out a glistening, rubbery thing which she tossed down in disgusted urgency. It landed on a colleague’s boot, who shook it off with furious stomps. The nearby officers were laughing their crowns off. The female cop was too busy scrubbing her fingers with spittle to care.
Maish stood emotionless, just exhausting smoke. He disappeared briefly as he retrieved his unwrapped condom. It is possible he put the latex in his pocket as a sick joke on the cops. He might also have unwrapped it for the right purposes but promptly forgot to use it. Whatever the real reason for the rubber in his pocket, we will probably never know.
Mama Nyokabi was also turned inside-out. They knew her bootleg trade well. Like every other illicit enterprise, they collected a daily ‘tax’ so they ‘could not see it’. Still, they were hoping to catch her with some stock. I exhaled when I saw her repacking a packet of tomatoes and a bunch of sweet potatoes into the paper bag. She looked up and our eyes met. She didn’t recognise me.
The cops let both go. My left hand …where had my left hand gone? I looked down to see it right there. It had gone numb from clasping the crocodile briefcase too tight. Guess I was afraid Mama Nyokabi might have decided to add to the stock we acquired from the supplier down the river some minutes earlier. I was wrong. It felt good to be wrong.
Presently, the cops began leaving. It had been a pretty successful hunt. Some choice captives were crammed into the back of the Land Rover. They were wealthier and were reserved for the seniors back at the station.
The rest were led off in single file. Their linked shirts, T-shirts or vests was a giant chain. A very unstable chain because now and then, someone stepped on the heel of the fellow in front, badly disrupting the rhythm.
Other times, some really drunk link would trip on a matchstick and throw the entire chain off balance. It was forty metres long in the least. But just a handful would get to the station. The links would break off enroute as relatives scrambled to buy off their kin.
The cops who searched Mama Nyokabi and Maish walked past looking disappointed. They would have loved to nail her with some merchandise. Such evidence would have necessitated a handsome ‘handshake’ to get back her freedom.
But they couldn’t find anything on her because the stash was secured inside my brown crocodile skin briefcase.